The "heroes of Fukushima," men and women who worked to contain a nuclear emergency stemming from a massive earthquake and tsunami that battered northeastern Japan on March 11, were named Wednesday as recipients of Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Concord.

The jury said this group of people, who risked their own safety to prevent "an even greater human and environmental tragedy," embody the highest human values.

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan and subsequent tsunami killed 28,000 people and left some 350,000 homeless, as well as causing major damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

That damage led to "hydrogen explosions and fusion of nuclear fuel, as well as causing several deaths and serious injuries due to radiation among workers at the plant," the jury said.

It noted the "serene, self-sacrificing response" of all of Japanese society and said the heroes of Fukushima took that self-sacrifice to a "heroic level," putting their own lives at risk to prevent a wider disaster.

The jury added that in doing so they provided the world with an "example of courage in the face of adversity, the sense of duty, defense of the common good and civic awareness."

In winning this year's concord prize, the heroes of Fukushima beat out World Youth Day, a Catholic event celebrated last month in Madrid and attended by Pope Benedict XVI and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Past winners of the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord have included English theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the World Network of Biosphere Reserves and British author and "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling.

According to the Prince of Asturias Foundation's Web site, the concord award recognizes people or institutions "whose work has made an exemplary and outstanding contribution to mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence among men, to the struggle against injustice, poverty, disease or ignorance, to the defense of freedom, or whose work has widened the horizons of knowledge or has been outstanding in protecting and preserving mankind's heritage.

The concord honor is the last of eight Asturias prizes to be awarded this year, each accompanied by a 50,000-euro (roughly $71,200) cash prize.

The winners also receive a sculpture by Joan Miro that represents and symbolizes the awards, a diploma and an insignia bearing the foundation's coat of arms.

Other award recipients were announced earlier in the year in the arts, social sciences, communication and humanities, technical and scientific research, letters, international cooperation and sports categories.

The prizes, which Spain's Crown Prince Felipe will hand out later this year in the northwestern city of Oviedo's Campoamor Theater, are regarded as the Ibero-American world's equivalent of the Nobels.